Christopher Maher: Today we’re joined by “friend of the blog” Conor Bell. Hey Conor! Last night he, Liza Friedman (our local Kedi reviewer) and I went and saw It Comes at Night. The film’s set up is relatively simple: in a post-plague world (Conor and Liza told me it wasn’t zombies, though I contend this is essentially a zombie movie) a family of three is holed up in a relatively fortified house. When a stranger appears they agree to take his family of three in as well. Nightmares, paranoia, and the danger lurking in the shadows begin to close in on the six major players.
I’ll leave a lot of the story break down to you folks for the time being and start on a the technical aspects. This movie is punishingly dark. Early in the movie Paul (Joel Edgerton) goes outside at night with only a flashlight. We see the darkness. In a wide his beam looks small and besides the top of a few bushes he catches in the foreground he is caged by darkness. Sweeping the beam over a forest he catches only bits of pieces of trees, and when the beam passes by them the darkness swallows them again. Something could easily be lurking in the darkness.
That being said, some of the techniques were a little obvious for my taste. A scene involving Paul and a stranger, Will (Christopher Abbott) talking things out is shot in a single take, with the camera swiveling constantly between them, keeping in profiled one-shots. When they made peace the camera swung back and finally allowed us a two shot of them, something I had suspected from the beginning of the shot. Is it any less effective just because it is obvious? I don’t know. What’d you think of the technical aspects, and the story? I was surprisingly never too scared, but I know you’re a much better and bigger horror buff than me.
Conor Bell: I think the question you raise about things being obvious is a good one. I mean, it’s that done to death-we get it argument that no story is original right? For me it doesn’t really matter whether a storytelling device is obvious, but whether or not it’s effective and ironically sometimes that relies on whether or not it’s obvious. In hindsight, yeah, I think that scene is a bit cliché, a bit like that scene from There Will Be Blood where Plainview discovers his “brother” is an imposter.
However, in the moment the scene worked for me because it didn’t provide any conclusive answers about Will’s lie or why he lied. But that didn’t matter. It was the distrust between the two characters that mattered. So the single take profile one shot worked with that because it forced me to rely on these two characters who might be untrustworthy. Paul could be paranoid, or Will could be a liar, but the shot presented them as equally valid characters for me to attach myself to. That was something I really loved about the technical aspects of this film. The majority of shots were really tight on the characters, forcing me to only see what they’re doing and saying, which sometimes contradicted what the other characters saw them doing. It’s like the scene in the car where Paul and Will are driving to Will’s house. There’s a combination of this flying Evil Dead POV and then these close ups on Paul and Will as they’re driving. I couldn’t see anything in the scene but Paul and Will, which forced me to rely on them to know what was happening around them. That stylistic choice was consistent throughout the film and I think that’s what makes it ok. Trey Edward Shults, the director, set that up as a rule: we’re going to use a lot of close shots on the characters who may be paranoid, liars, or worse. It made it incredibly difficult to trust the point of view and the world of any of these characters and that’s interesting because audiences usually look for one person to trust in a film. If there was a character like that it probably would have been Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), but he was having the insane nightmares so he couldn’t really be trusted because he was losing his mind. And I loved the use of darkness in this film. There are so many scenes where it looks almost as if the dark is going to swallow someone whole. All of Travis’ dreams in the woods were terrifying because he was surrounded by this absolute darkness. Anything could have jumped out at any moment. This whole lack of trust made it feel as if there was going to be a jump scare every other minute. The movie did make one false jump scare in the scene where Travis startles Kim in the kitchen. Jump scares are pretty lame because it’s all set up an no pay off, but honestly most of the film is set up with a different pay off then we expect so it’s all consistent, which makes it fine by me!
I love how the film explored the fragility of trust even to the point where the audience was included in that. You have these two families, Paul’s has the better situation and Will’s needs their help. The world around them makes it difficult to trust people. Here’s where the comparisons between this film and things like the Muslim Ban become prevalent. People in America believe the world around them is dangerous and here are these refugees who need their help–and people get hurt and worse as a result. We see the family cooperating and working with one another for a bit. Everything is really bright and happy, the tone of the film does a complete 180 and for a moment it seems that things are going to be ok. In real life when people work together and take care of one another that happens too! Later a clear moment of miscommunication has disastrous results. It’s a cautionary tale, bad shit happens when we stop trusting one another. I’ve said that word a lot by the way: trust, trust, trust, trust, trust.
This movie was a typical horror movie for A24. It doesn’t make it any less of a movie or them any less of a company. They like slow burn horror films. I recently saw The Blackcoat’s Daughter and really dug it, but I think maybe a fast paced horror movie would be interesting to see them do.
CM: I think you’re on the right path with the even keeled presentation of the movie. There’s paranoia all around and we aren’t exactly offered easy answers as to who is right and who is wrong, if the paranoia is justified or if it isn’t. As you say both families bring up fair points, and both families do pretty shifty stuff and we’re not necessarily told if they end up being justified.
You touch on the nightmares Travis has throughout the film. I said after we were done watching the flick I usually hate the use of nightmare sequences, but I think they worked well in the film. It was often difficult to tell if we were in a nightmare or not, which I think was exactly what you were discussing with keeping the audience paranoid as well. We couldn’t tell who to trust because we weren’t exactly sure what the “objective reality” of the film itself was. We had a sort of viewpoint character, but he was seeing things that weren’t there (and in some sequences I think he may have even purposely omitted things, another neat trick). The movie would of course be robbed of its power if it did ever present a baseline reality, and I’m glad it never goes there.
CB: It would feel out of tone if it did. I think a dumber movie probably would have tried to establish that, but thankfully this movie got like a nineteen hundred on the SATs so it’s pretty smart.
I forgot to talk about how I liked the difference in the families. Paul’s family was always shown as really cold and distant, where Will’s family were often shown cuddling and playing with each other. Without giving any spoilers those dynamics play a subtle, but key role in how everything plays out. The characters have well developed psychologies, I guess for lack of a better word, where their points of view impact the way they interact with one another.
The acting was stellar. Everyone’s work was really grounded, the listening was on point, the actors brought a clear point of view and opinion to each of the characters, they all made specific choices that affected one another. Kelvin Harrison Jr. handled Travis really well and conveyed his arc with the precision of a surgeon. Also everyone should watch James White with Christopher Abbott. That movie is really good. He’s pretty good too. I liked Carmen Ejogo a lot. I thought she had a really nice sense of vulnerability to her and really received what her scene partners were giving her and gave back. Good job team!
Oh would you look at the time! It’s 10:22 pm and that means it’s time for all the little reviewers to go home to their sleepy beds and rest their sleepy heads so they can have big dreamy dream dreams about movies.
I give this movie an 8 out of 10.
CM: I think the dog who played Stanley was the best actor. I give this movie 7.5 creepy plague victims out of 10.
Conor Bell was our guest reviewer today. This is what he had to say for himself when I asked for a bio: “I don’t have a website yet and I’m ashamed of my instagram. But my name is Conor Bell, I’m an actor, and one day you will fear me. Peep me on IMDb ;)”. Thanks Conor!